At the Crossroads
Will President Obama’s second term aim to ease the strained US-Pakistan relationship or will it suffer even greater setbacks?
Pakistan suffered from an uneasy relationship with President Obama during his first term. To begin with, Obama reneged on his promise made during the preelection campaign to help resolve the Kashmir issue. The rapid acceleration in drone strikes within Pakistan, the Raymond Davis affair, the Abbottabad raid followed by the NATO attack on a Pakistan Army check post at Salala, further soured relations between the erstwhile allies. Drone attacks have been a bone of contention between Pakistan and the US. The collateral damage of innocent civilians as a result of incessant drone attacks has caused public outrage in Pakistan.
• The Obama administration insists that the drone attacks have received tacit approval of the Pakistani authorities but Pakistan vehemently denies the implication. The sordid affair of CIA operative Raymond Davis kill- ing two Pakistanis in broad daylight brought relations between Islamabad and Washington to an all time low. President Obama jumped into the fray, wrongly insisting that the apprehended spook was a US diplomat and as such enjoyed immunity.
While public anger mounted, the infamous Abbottabad raid on May 02, 2011 diffused the Raymond Davis affair. Pakistani armed forces were caught napping when US Navy SEALs executed a clandestine raid on a residence in the military cantonment town of Abbottabad and allegedly assassinated Osama bin Laden. The matter did not end there but allegations were hurled that either Pakistani authorities were complicit in hiding Osama or were completely ineffective. On November 26, 2011, an unprovoked attack on Pakistan Army’s check post at Salala killing 25 Pakistani soldiers wreaked havoc in the bilateral relations. Pakistan closed the ground lines of communication/ NATO supply routes through Pakistan and forced the US to vacate the Shamsi air base in Baluchistan that was allegedly used to launch drone attacks. The US retaliated by stopping payments to Pakistan, due under the head of Coalition Support Fund and US aid to Pakistan.
Obama’s first term strategy has been to marginalize Pakistan and give preference to India, envisaging a role for the Indian military in a post-2014 Afghanistan when the bulk of US and international forces will depart from this theater of war. Pakistan is not comfortable with such an arrangement, since the presence of Indian troops in Afghanistan would enable India to encircle and choke Pakistan. There are reports of Indian security agency, RAW’s operatives manning the fourteen consulates and trade missions in Afghanistan along the Durand Line, which are allegedly being used to destabilize Pakistan.
Obama’s next four years will mean differently for Pakistan and the US. A war-weary and economically cash strapped US would prefer to conduct a rapid egress from Afghanistan but
would like to avoid the ignominy of defeat. The trust deficit has so worsened between the erstwhile allies that the US accuses Pakistan of aiding and abetting the Taliban, providing them safe haven in its tribal belt and facilitating their attacks on US forces and installations within Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan suspects that the US has been supporting antiPakistan elements, arming and training them to conduct terrorist attacks so that a battered Pakistan would be forced to conduct anti-Taliban military operations in North Waziristan. President Obama’s infamous Af-Pak strategy is not likely to undergo much change, except that Obama may attempt to make a more viable endgame in Afghanistan.
However, President Obama’s reelection also ushers in positive developments. Firstly, in all probability, an attack on Iran would not be contemplated. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is known to have been colluding with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, would possibly have been coerced into launching an attack on Iran and plunged the whole region in another round of death and terror. Pakistan would have undoubtedly been caught in the midst as it is already facing the repercussions of the war in Afghanistan. President Obama will certainly be more wary of starting another meaningless war.
Many Pakistanis were disillusioned by President Obama’s first term but heaved a sigh of relief that Mitt Romney, who appeared more ominous, has been defeated while Barack Obama’s actions vis-à-vis Pakistan will be predictable. He will be tough and will persist with the drone attacks trying to marginalize Pakistan. Another development is the sudden departure of CIA Director, General David Petraeus amidst an alleged secret affair with his biographer. Petraeus had adopted a tough stand towards Pakistan, perhaps for personal reasons. The hero of the US-led war in Iraq was brought to Afghanistan to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat but failed miserably. He consequently blamed his failure on Pakistan’s alleged support for anti-US Taliban. The departure of David Petraeus is likely to pave way perhaps for a more pragmatic CIA Director, which may be beneficial for Pakistan.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s own general elections are a stone’s throw away. Pakistanis often conflate what’s best for the government and what’s best for the people. If the new dispensation in Islamabad comprises a combination of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, then the US will lose the pliable pro-US Zardari group. In such a case, Foggy Bottom (US State Department) will have to modify its stance towards marginalizing Pakistan. With General Kayani also completing his extended term in office, the US will seek new partners in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (Army GHQ). It will have to forge fresh alliances and perhaps agree to grant a more operational role to Pakistani interlocutors to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. If the US attempts to manipulate Pakistan’s elections to bring forth its malleable and ductile allies of the past, public opinion in Pakistan will turn even more hostile towards the US and it would not be advisable for Washington to meddle. Whatever the future holds, it is an accepted fact that like many times before we are at the crossroads of history and hardnosed decisions will have to be taken, keeping Pakistan’s best interests in the foreground. May sanity prevail in both Capitol Hill and Islamabad.